Christine Middlemiss, Gideon Henderson and the Defra bovine TB data fiasco

In March 2022 the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) Christine Middlemiss & Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) Gideon Henderson joined Defra Media Centre in attacking a peer-reviewed, freshly published scientific paper on bovine TB control (Langton et al.), stating that they thought it was flawed, and had ‘inappropriate’ analysis, see here.

The graph the CVO & CSA produced (top right) looked odd, and the authors of the original paper immediately suspected an error in the data, and wrote to Defra with an enquiry to this effect.  In addition, much of their written rebuttal seemed invalid. Further, the CVO wrote a personal blog highlighting her criticisms of the new paper. The blog then received a number of posted comments from external observers and academics which reiterated the papers’ authors’ concerns about potential errors in Defra’s analysis and incorrect conclusions. A response to the CVO & CSA from the authors of the paper was printed in Vet Record on 02 April, see here.

It took more than six weeks before Defra admitted that it had got it wrong and published a new graph of data (above, bottom right). But they maintained that this did not change their overall conclusions about the new paper; basically that it was ‘wrong’. They did not respond to the rebuttal arguments that the authors put forward in the 02 April issue of the journal Veterinary Record. On this there is still strange silence.

The authors of the paper had a further letter published in Vet Record on May 21st responding to Defra’s admission of data errors and their replacement graph. You can read this here

This week, CVO Christine Middlemiss made a small adjustment to her blog, but did not change her faulty graph. She added some wording to the following paragraph (in bold).

“Our analysis indicates a clear reduction in OTFw cattle breakdowns, relative to unculled areas, in culled areas from cull year 2 onwards (Fig 1). For example, TB incidence in the areas where culling started in 2016 has dropped from 17.2 OTFw breakdowns per 100 herd years at risk in 2016/17, to 8.7 in 2019/20.

Similarly in the areas where culling started in 2017 it has dropped from 15.3 in 2017/18 to 8.4 in 2019/20.

In contrast, in the parts of the high-risk area (HRA) where no culling took place, incidence has only fluctuated slightly from year to year, from 10.9 in 2015/16 rising to 12.8 in 2016/17 before returning to 10.9 in 2019/20.”


It is a shame that the CVO does not seem to have grasped that the first bar in the graph represents the first year data after culling and not pre-cull incidence. Incidence levels before culling began are missed off, and these better shows the pattern of change in the first two years that they focus on.

The CVO & CSA’s main criticism of the new paper is that (they imply) bTB does not come down enough in the first two years for those years to be grouped with later years of culling. Looking at their graph, this is clearly not the case and the CVO and CSA’s position is a paradox and nonsense. There is a drop in culled and unculled areas if you examine all the culled and unculled data, and not just a sample of unculled (never-culled) area. The steady decline in incidence, as shown in the Langton, Jones and McGill paper, is attributable to cattle testing and movement control measures. Defra’s attempt to show otherwise falls at the first hurdle. It is something Middlemiss and Henderson seem reluctant to address. It is understood that Defra intend to ignore their own faulty response, and endorse an APHA study at a disease conference in July in Canada as justification to carry on culling in September.

Christine Middlesmiss doubled down on her position in an interview on Farming Today on 26th May (the focus of which was Defra’s badger vaccination licensing scheme), using very strong language and stating that in the Langton, Jones and McGill paper, “the whole methodology was wrong and so the conclusion was wrong.” Again, she claimed that the authors had not used a robust methodology to examine and assess it and therefore the conclusions are wrong, they’re not scientifically valid.”

This is a bold claim about a rigorously peer reviewed paper in a leading scientific journal, and one that it could be said she should be able to clearly and concisely articulate in a debate, or at least to the authors. It is not good enough for the CVO to just claim, as she did in her interview, that “it is complex“.

Further she said we believe that culling is effective, apparently relying on faith rather than understanding of published science. She must be able to explain her reasoning for dismissal of peer reviewed science. She also said that “It’s not absolutely my decision to release it [the data], implying political interference? The authors are still waiting for a response to their April invitation to discuss the CVO’s criticism with her.

You can listen to the CVO’s interview on Farming Today, available here.

The CVO & the CSA must look again and accept the findings of the new robust peer-reviewed research. Prevailing science shows the current badger culling policy to have failed, with no detectable impact from it on the incidence of bovine TB in cattle herds in the High Risk Area. The 29 Supplementary Badger Culling licences authorised this Wednesday were issued on the back of a government veterinary service in denial.

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Badger culling and BTB data:

Middlemiss and Henderson say sorry for getting it wrong

As previously blogged on 18th March here, the respected journal Veterinary Record published a new scientific appraisal of the effect of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the High Risk Area of England using government data collected from farmers and vets for over a decade. This extensively peer reviewed paper is available open access online, in full here. The paper concluded that badger culling has not been associated with reductions in bovine TB (bTB) incidence or prevalence among cattle herds.

Alongside a one-page summary of the paper in the Vet Record print edition, the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) Christine Middlemiss and Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) Gideon Henderson published an un peer-reviewed letter rebutting the paper’s main findings. They produced their ‘alternative analysis’ in the form of a graph, and claimed it showed that badger culling was ‘working’ in reducing bTB in cattle. The graph indicated very rapid declines in bTB in culled areas following the commencement of culling, with little change in unculled areas. The CVO Christine Middlemiss also posted a blog on the Defra website using the same graph.

The graph could not be reconciled with publicly available data. There followed repeated requests for Defra to supply the data and methodology, but these were not met. Then last week, six weeks after publication, Middlemiss and Henderson  sent an email to the authors of the original paper stating:

“Following your recent correspondence about how incidence in unculled area was calculated we have re-examined our analyses and discovered an error we wish to bring to your attention.  The incidence in the area unculled throughout the period was calculated incorrectly. The incidence in cull areas is unchanged. We attach a corrected graph, with the corresponding data and workings as previously requested. We apologise for this error..”

A new graph was provided (see below). After further requests and delay, we have data from Defra to allow us to reproduce their corrected graph but not to check its origination. Defra’s original published graph shows bTB herd incidence higher in unculled areas in four of the five years, while in the new one it sits at the same levels as in culled areas.

As previously, Defra are still disregarding huge areas of unculled land in their blue-bar ‘never culled’ areas, which is problematic. Notably, however, the error bars between ‘culled’ and ‘never culled’ overlap more extensively, so the difference between the two is unclear.  It seems that Defra’s corrected calculations corroborate the findings in the Langton et al., and that there has indeed been no significant impact from badger culling on bTB incidence among cattle herds.

Defra’s graphs from their 19th March letter and 5th May email:

19th March (withdrawn): Unculled incidence is higher than culled in 4 of the 5 years.
5th May: Now incidence levels in unculled areas are shown well within same levels as culled areas.

Defra’s “never culled” areas are likely to include significant land areas where bTB is less of an issue, with landowners having a lower incentive to coordinate a cull, whilst the “waiting to be culled” portion of the unculled area will have significant areas where bTB is a major problem. Defra is engineering a highly selective use of the available data. It adds up to a misleading picture that is bringing Defra into disrepute. Without access to their full data source, it is not possible to fully understand their rationale.

Further, when you don’t limit the data as Middlemiss and Henderson did, and add “all culled areas” bars (green), and include 2013/14 and 2014/15 (see below), it shows the true extent of decline of bTB incidence in unculled areas that mirrors culled areas.

Revised Defra data with Langton et al’s unculled green bars

The 5th May ‘apology’ email from Middlesmiss and Henderson maintains that “this does not change the overall argument in the letter”, yet over six weeks on, they have failed to address a response by the authors to this criticism (published in Vet Record on 2nd April). This response shows that their main argument on ‘incorrect grouping’ of data does not undermine the peer-reviewed statistical analysis.

Specifically, Middlemiss and Henderson claimed that using data from the first two years of culling ‘masks’ any overall effect from badger culling, making it ‘impossible to see’. But Defra’s counter argument rests upon a steep decline in herd incidence over those first two years! Defra’s argument falls and the answer is that taking all the data, herd breakdowns reduce in culled and unculled areas at similar rates, due to cattle measures both before and after badger culling is rolled out.

So, the senior Defra scientists have no answer, and continue to use delaying tactics, while still providing only limited access to the available data that might enable independent researchers to assess their new graph. This is shocking and does not serve the public interest. Cattle-based measures implemented from 2010, and particularly the introduction of the annual tuberculin skin (SICCT) test have been responsible for the slowing, levelling, peaking and decrease in bovine TB in cattle in the High Risk Area (HRA) of England during the study period, before badger culling was rolled out in 2016.

Last week, the authors of the badger culling paper, Tom Langton, Mark Jones and Iain McGill wrote to George Eustice (read here) about the continuing fiasco and asking for badger culling to be suspended and for additional clarification and dialogue.

This is what all stakeholders and the public deserve. Clear, open government responding to the facts in an honest and professional way.  No more delay, secrecy, and avoidance of the real issues. It is time things changed.

On Friday 20th May, the paper’s authors response to Defra’s apology and clarification was published in Vet Record. You can read this here:

Farming Today featured the debate around Defra’s data miscalculation on 20th May; you can listen here from 7:18 minutes in.

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Permission Granted!

Court of Appeal confirm new hearing regarding the ecological impacts of badger culling (NERC Act 2006). Judicial Review Case: CO/2062/2020

The Badger Crowd is pleased to confirm that an Application to the Court of Appeal has been successful, reopening the judgements in the High Court of Mr Justice Griffiths in 2021. The appeal has taken a very long time to come through and we now hope the case will be heard before any new licences are issued by Defra and Natural England, and used this year.

Justice Griffiths in his ‘to everything there is a season’ ruling (1) had intimated that there was no need for the Minister to take steps to have regard for biodiversity protection for NERC Act listed priority species and habitats in England. The case relates to Minister George Eustice and Defra publishing a “Next Steps” policy in March 2020, prolonging the slaughter of tens of thousands of mostly healthy badgers each year in existing and new places with, according to current peer-reviewed science, no recordable benefit (2).

Defra claimed that it had decided not to protect NERC Act protected biodiversity interest from potential culling side-effects when culling began in 2013, and again in 2020, despite the 2018 Godfray review (3) flagging-up continuing professional concerns about impacts and the need for research to enable management of the risk, as determined by government funded pilot studies.

Oystercatcher; now you see them, now you don’t ? One of a number of medium sized waders (such as redshank, snipe and lapwing) at risk from changing predator patterns, but only afforded protective consideration by conditions on culling licences, when nesting on protected sites.
 

Removal of badgers from the countryside is known to bring about a range of changes to natural communities but the extent of these is unclear and determined only by careful monitoring. However, when identifying risks of such change, research undertaken over 10 years ago was limited to just a few species and habitats. Previous cases in 2017 and 2018 showed that Natural England were in breach of their duty in not properly considering the same kind of impacts to SSSI’s, leading to criticisms of government by the High Court and radical changes to Natural England’s operations. Impacts expert Dominic Woodfield from Bioscan continues to provide specialist advice on the case.

The current case challenges the continuing and long-term neglect of potential impacts on a wide range of potentially impacted habitats and species. The case also highlights Natural England’s pitiful contribution to the monitoring of nature, the unacceptably poor condition of many nature reserves and protected areas in England, and to the biodiversity depleted countryside in general.

This case will also resonate in Northern Ireland where the government department’s (DAERA) proposals to carry out ‘preliminary ecological assessment’ to form a baseline to monitor badger culling that it wants to undertake, has been widely derided and possibly now withdrawn. It is unclear how ecological impacts will be considered in NI and the case in England will certainly inform that consideration and potentially a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Badger Group (4).

Details of the timing of the Court of Appeal hearing are currently undecided, but as last year’s case was expedited in front of the issue of badger culling licences, this is likely to happen again this year. So far, this case has been generously funded by the Badger Crowd network of Badger Trusts and Groups, notably the Badger Trust, Badger Trust Sussex, & Wild Justice, together with well-wishers and the public who are thanked again for perseverance, generosity, and determination.

Reference

(1) https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2021/2199.html

(2) Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec. 2022;e1384. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.1384

(3) Godfray Review 2018

(4) Northern Ireland Badger Group challenge, with others: http://www.badgersni.org.uk/pressrelease.html

 

Defra ‘tribalism’ tries to undermine bTB study?

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A recent scientific paper in Veterinary Record (1) by independent researchers Tom Langton, Mark Jones and Iain McGill, showing the effects of badger culls on bovine TB herd breakdowns over the last decade, has been met by criticism from officials at the top of Defra. There are accusations that it is ‘flawed’, and in the Daily Telegraph, even of data ‘rigging’ . You can view a 3 minute video of the main findings here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Off-The-Leash.jpgFurther details on the origin and contents of the paper are discussed in a 40-minute Off the Leash interview by Charlie Moores with two of the authors Tom Langton and Mark Jones, here. 

Many badger campaigners will know Mary Barton, aka Betty Badger, who stands up for badgers outside Defra offices each Thursday, and has done for many years. On Thursday 17th March, she was granted a meeting in person with Environment Secretary George Eustice. He told Mary that he thought the study was ‘flawed’. Then on 18th March, Defra put out a dramatic press statement, criticizing the content & motivation of those involved in writing, reviewing, and publishing the paper (2) :

“This paper has been produced to fit a clear campaign agenda and manipulates data in a way that makes it impossible to see the actual effects of badger culling on reducing TB rates. It is disappointing to see it published in a scientific journal.”

and

“Experienced scientists from the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency have reviewed the report and found its analysis is scientifically flawed. It has manipulated the data in a way that makes it hard to understand the actual effects of badger culling and therefore its conclusions are wrong. Today, the Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, and Chief Scientific Adviser, Gideon Henderson, have also published a letter in Vet Record, which rebuts the report’s claims. The CVO has also written a blog about this.”

 Which stated (3):

“We do not believe the scientific methodology used is credible as the analysis has been carried out in an unusual manner ”

These are confident words from the chief vet, informed no doubt by James McCormack (Head of Science Advice to Defra TB policy) and Eleanor Brown (Defra’s Veterinary Head for TB Policy Advice) to try to prevent acceptance of what are the plain and simple findings from Defra’s own data. The new analysis has been extensively checked using appropriate models, peer-reviewed by 4 reviewers, and accepted as a solid piece of research. In truth the 2021 badger culls should have been put on hold in June of that year because the basic findings were clear then and Defra knew about them. 

However, the Defra Chief Scientific Advisor and CVO claimed in a letter to Vet Record on the day of publication (4) that “This analysis has been carried out in a manner that masks the effect of culling by incorrectly grouping data.”

 

Defra’s alternative analysis, shown above, has done something strange to diminish ‘unculled’ area data, that is not explained, yet which appears to undo their own argument. The letter states that the ‘impact of culling on cattle outbreaks takes some time to appear’ while showing steep decline in bTB in the first two years of culling. Oops!

All scientific studies have limitations and none are 100% correct. What Defra are doing in their letter is adopting a pro-cull narrative to promote their policy publicly, with an un-peer reviewed analysis. They are avoiding the sharp reality of what their data is really telling them, and George Eustice and the government should be very concerned about this.

Defra have defended their pro-cull policy in Parliament and in the High Court using a government study from 2019 that uses very small amounts of data (Downs et al. 2019 (5)), wrongly, as ‘proof’ that badger culling ‘works’. That paper in fact admits that there are enormous limitations to its conclusions. The position that ‘culling works’, however, has been widely adopted by the Minister, MPs, the NFU and farming stakeholders.

It’s in the herd: cattle measures are the answer

Cow undergoing SICCT test

Defra have dismissed in a short soundbite, one of the most interesting findings of the published paper: the disease slowing, peaking and declining between 2011 and 2016 across the HRA counties, and before badger culling began in all but one area.  Defra want to adjust the data for confounding variables. Such adjustment is something that only Defra can do, as they alone have access to this ‘secret’ data. But adjustments are hardly likely to substantially change the conclusions, when such a huge dataset has been used in the analysis (over 20,000 herd a year).  Mention has been made of changes in badger cull buffer areas and badger population numbers, but the strength and validity of that data is questionable and presently obscure.

The Defra letter is particularly disappointing, given that Defra/APHA should have been using data to closely monitor and inform the public on the effects of bTB interventions and to ‘adapt and learn’ from their analysis. As they intimated would be the case in a Judicial Review of culling in the High Court in 2018, and as the judgement anticipated. And to encourage and inform those involved in the grueling cattle testing effort. Shouldn’t the public, who are after all paying for all of this, demand that too? Ask a simple question: why didn’t Defra do an analysis with the large data set they had available in 2019 and show the results? Was it because it showed that bTB was peaking and falling in both culled and unculled areas, well before badger culling was rolled out?

But that would mean admitting that cattle measures are the key ‘tool in the box’ to bTB control and need to be extended. BTB  decline since 2015 has averaged around 5% per year in the HRA, very similar to the picture in Wales where badgers are not culled and also in Republic of Ireland (RoI). Badger culling is now being phased out in RoI, with long term use of annual SICCT and gamma testing, and with bTB OTFW incidence no lower than around 4%, due to the limitations of the SICCT test. International evidence points to cattle measures alone being the solution, as predicted by experts for over 20 years.

The answers are all here. BTB should keep coming down in the English HRA if it follows the RoI trend over the next 3-5 years. If modern PCR testing is applied, it could be dealt with well before 2030. If the will is there. The Edge area crisis is another matter, but could be turned around too with correct thinking and the right interventions.

Other specialist comment:

Prof Paul Torgerson from the Section of Veterinary Epidemiology at the Vetsuisse Faculty of the University of Zurich wrote an opinion editorial for Vet Record on 19th March (6) offering insights on why badger culling doesn’t work, as predicted by the government researchers conducting the Randomised Badger Culling Trial back in 2007.

The Defra and the Middlemiss/Henderson arguments have been more than dented.The authors of the new analysis have responded in the Veterinary Record (2nd April) letters pages (7), saying that Defra’s criticism of the paper is baseless, and their attempt to show alternative science lacks explanation in the way they have handled the data. Defra have discounted around half of the data and the figures they use do not match figures from the reference material. There is also a dead end Link. This could be interpreted as ‘data manipulation’ to try to defend existing policy-based science. Defra’s refusal to accept the Langton et al. analysis using all of the cull data over the whole period of culling, is effectively limiting consideration of one of the most important debates of farming and veterinary concern of the last 50 years.

Over £100 million of public money per year is paid to farmers each year to support bovine TB control, and over £90 Million has been spent killing around 180,000 badgers since 2013; £500 per badger.

Defra’s position is that it wants yet more ‘thinking time’ to privately consider data and internal reports. Meanwhile, concerned observers can only watch while the decision on the course of the badger cull, where Defra aim to kill a further c.110,000 badgers from this June through to January 2026, hangs in the balance. The matter of efficacy needs settling. But Defra want to begin culling again this June and September with the issue of further licences.

‘Scepticism, science & statistics’, by Ian Boyd

There is an irony here in as much as the attitude of Defra employees towards the new study appears to have formed a classic exemplar of what the retired Defra Chief scientific advisor (2012-2018)  Prof. Iain Boyd has described recently as departmental ‘tribalism’ in his article in the Royal Society of Statistic journal Significance  entitled ‘Scepticism, science and  statistics’. Staff behaviour includes hostile over-reaction to anyone questioning government policy.

We can only hope that those involved will now resist that ‘unjustified tribal confidence’ and the ‘traditions embedded within their professional tribe’ and find the ‘social licence to break out’. For the sake of badgers, cows, farmers, the countryside  and the public, they need to do it now.

Northern Ireland

DAERA  (NI Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs) have been pressing for a badger cull in NI for some time and have rushed a consultation through recently to try to copy ‘English-style’ badger culling.

For many years Mike Rendle and the Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG) have been working with legal and scientific support from the Badger Trust and Eurobadger. Working and meeting with government at Stormont to discuss the issue.

Developments since 2020 have been very disappointing and many who have been watching closely feel the DAERA process of considering interventions has been bungled and that it should have followed the Welsh model. For example, on the government’s own data there is a distinct lack of association (see below) between high badger density areas and high bovine TB incidence areas. The matter of DAERA’s concealed ‘business case’ for badger culling and why the badger intervention with highest environmental impact has been chosen remains unexplained. DAERA even dropped their ecological impact assessments (SEA/HRA) in favour of an earlier ‘dumbed down’ version. This  followed an extensive critique, submitted by NIBG describing multiple failures in the proposals and with useful input from eco-regulations expert Dominic Woodfield.

 

Illustration from the Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Now Wild Justice (8)  (Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery) have come to the fore and with NIBG are Judicially Reviewing the decision to shoot badgers on the basis of improper consultation regarding the business plan and cost-benefit analysis. This includes reference to the new paper on badger culling efficacy in Vet Record. Cattle movements in NI are less controlled than in England, and cattle measures alone should control bTB if a higher level of herd management discipline and more accurate testing could be introduced to cattle controls. But if Defra have been coaching DAERA, the road to ruin may have been laid.

References

(1) Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec. 2022;e1384.

(2) Defra media statement 18 March 2022.

(3) Christine Middlemiss blog 21 March 2022.

(4) Christine Middlemiss and Gideon Henderson letter to Vet record 19th March 2022.

(5)  Downs S HProsser AAshton AAshfield SBrunton L ABrouwer A, et al. Assessing effects from four years of industry-led badger culling in England on the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, 2013–2017. 

(6) Paul R Torgerson, P. R. Editorial in Vet Record, 19th March 2022.What is the role of badger culling as a control measure for bovine TB?

(7) Badger culling to control bovine TB, letter to Vet record, Thomas ES Langton, Mark W Jones & Iain McGill. 2nd April 2022.

(8) Wild Justice Judicial Review

(9) Interview with Tom Langton & James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, BBC Radio 4 Farming Today, 19th March 2022. Clickable button below.

2021 – it’s been another bad year for badgers and cattle

This ‘end of year’ brings an opportunity to share collective thanks for everyone’s efforts to inform and support the legal action for badgers and their wild communities. Those actions that are being considered and planned, and those that are currently in progress. Take a moment to ponder how many of us continue to work on a regular basis, often many hours a week, to help expose the truth about badger culling, and to bring to bear justice against the government’s vandalism of nature. We still have sufficient funds to progress legal avenues for now, and the continued generosity and positive messages from you is hugely appreciated.

There is no doubt that this has been a busy and difficult year. There has been a great deal happening in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. We have remained in close contact with and maintained multiple workstreams with all the individuals and organisations who are fighting to protect badgers and their natural communities.

The wait continues for the English Court of Appeal to determine the September 2021 application for permission to appeal (Claim No: CO/2062/2020) against Defra and Natural England. This case relates to the potential ecological impacts of intensive and supplementary badger culling under the March 2020 “Next Steps” policy and the way in which safeguards have been overlooked or inadequately addressed for ‘NERC Act’ habitats and species. Much information is bound up in the legal papers that cannot be shared freely yet, and in recent freedom of information disclosures. These hold revelations regarding how Natural England has conducted itself, with respect to its duty to protect the countryside and their behaviour when confronted with uncertainty.

Meanwhile, the government remains secretive and uncommunicative on its position on phasing-out intensive and supplementary badger culling. Rather suspiciously, it is refusing to explain its scientific rationale because it says it needs ‘space to think’. Referring only to its general and rather vague wish to ‘tilt’ cattle TB eradication policy towards non-lethal interventions, that is yet to be revealed in any tangible forward plan.

Government has also encouraged, and tried to promote its future vison on epidemiological or ‘epi’ culling. This put simply, is localised or reactive culling that failed during the RBCT, and that has failed in the Republic of Ireland, and for which APHA now bizarrely holds its failed Cumbria Low Risk Area culling since 2018 up as its exemplar [1]. DEFRA has also admitted that beyond a small Sussex experiment on engaging farmers in badger vaccination, it will only train ten vaccinators a year. Showing that this approach will remain a tiny side show to culling. I reviewed some of these aspects in the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Badger Group ‘Voices For Badgers’ Webinar on 23rd September 2021 [2]. This followed the announcement by DEFRA via their Exeter University TB hub that they would be ignoring the findings of the Godfray Review (2018), instead promoting badger vaccination on their ‘brand new’ view that it “should” influence cattle TB levels. This is a leap of faith for those expected to accept, implement, and pay for it. Badger vaccination of course comes with the heaviest of price tags; allowing badger culling alongside it, with continued inadequate cattle measures for as long as those in charge decide.

Several ‘Whole Genome Sequencing’ studies using badger and cattle dna samples were published as papers and reports this year. Results are full of limitations and uncertainties and argued this way and that. Much of it is speculation due to the uncertain timing of transmission events. This year also saw the results of the Edge Area ‘Badger Found Dead’ survey, showing that the bTB spoligotypes found in badgers and those in breakdown herds did not match other than in one or two places [3]. More evidence that the role of badgers is constantly being exaggerated by APHA.

Meanwhile, Wales decided to drop its expensive Test Vaccinate Remove (TVR) programme for chronic bTB herds, with its erratic DPP trap-side testing system. England has decided to throw £565,000 at a 3-year DIVA test for badgers to try to distinguish vaccinated from infected individuals [4].  Unfortunately, DIVA tests using the immune response are likely to share the same known uncertainties of the SICCT test. The approach ignores new technology that can directly identify bTB at low density in the blood (and milk) of animals (Phage testing ) and which is so valuable for detecting Johne’s disease.

2021 was a year with growing evidence to show that badgers are not significantly involved in causing or maintaining bovine tuberculosis transmission in cattle, and that badger culling holds no true meaning or value in attempts to control cattle TB.  This provides us with further motivation to push over this rotten mountain of misinformation that perpetuates a failed policy supported by vested interests. To call out the clouded judgment of those ‘in too deep’ to see and recognize the hole they are in and to stop digging. The Geronimo alpaca case, where vets could not find evidence of infection, yet government came out with a lame cover story, exposes just how sickly, government veterinary management has become.

In Northern Ireland we are working on their consultation regarding badger interventions, and have warned DAERA of the potential for legal action should they cross red lines and engage in an ‘English-style’ badger cull in 2022.

At Westminster, Owen Paterson, the man who pushed the badger cull into life in 2013, has been exposed for his sleazy breaking of parliamentary rules. He has gone, and with him, his constituency seat. Maybe this is a sign that things are changing and that truth and accurate evidence will replace the bTB nonsense that we have perpetually been served since 2010.

So we will come out fighting again in 2022, with added resolve and determination. We are the Badger Crowd and we fight for badgers.

With thanks again for all the kind messages of support and with all good wishes for Christmas and the New Year to you and your families,

Tom Langton, for the Badger Crowd.

Badger Culling and Vaccination: Where is the March 2020 “Next Steps” policy trying to take us?

Last Thursday 23rd September, Hertfordshire and Middlesex Badger Group hosted a webinar to look closely at the governments “Next Steps” strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England.

Ecologist Tom Langton kicked off the event with a presentation on the policy as it relates to badger vaccination. It was very sobering. In contrast to the headlines that accompanied the announcement of the policy (‘Badger Culling to be Banned’ was what much of the mainstream media ran), badger culling looks set to continue, although in a different guise.

Large scale culling (of 70-90%) of badgers is to be replaced with localised 100% culls, with the example of the Cumbria 100% cull as the policy model.  Cattle herds in Cumbria (Area 32/hotspot 21) are still experiencing high numbers of bTB breakdowns despite three years of culling & now farms have many ‘dead’ setts. One badger has been vaccinated for every ten shot, and some vaccinated badgers may already have been shot.

The chief vet will be able to authorise localised culling based on the new ‘epi-pathway’ approach. Basically, this means that if local vets cite badgers as a likely source of infection, such as infection found in just a few badgers, culling can be licensed.

APHA ‘risk pathways’ approaches do not factor in the low sensitivity of some of the bTB herd testing being used, leaving up to 50% of infection undiagnosed in the herd. Cattle are still the biggest, if not only source of bTB infection, but APHA just refuse to take full ownership of the problem.

So how is Defra going to sell this shocking new ‘cull and vaccinate’ policy to the public, those of us who passionately love our wildlife? It looks as if they are trying to ‘normalise’ culling by engaging voluntary groups to get involved in vaccinating a proportion of badgers. The problem with this approach is that participants will have to comply with government by stopping opposition to culling, by handing over sett data, and by telling farmers that badger vaccination will reduce bTB in cattle. None of these things are acceptable.

Born Free veterinarian Mark Jones made his position clear: we “…need to avoid getting drawn into a situation where there is tacit acceptance of a system that seeks to secure de facto support for culling, with vaccination used as an exit strategy from it”.

To find out more about what the government has planned for our badgers to 2038 and beyond, watch the webinar recording here.

 

Ecological Impacts (NERC Act 2006) Judicial Review: Application to the Court of Appeal.

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The Badger Crowd is pleased to  confirm that an Application to the Court of Appeal has been made and that further legal papers are to follow shortly. The case concerns whether the High Court Mr Justice Griffiths was correct to rule that there was no need for the Minister to take steps to have regard for  biodiversity protection for NERC Act listed priority species and habitats. This relates to Minister George Eustice and Defra publishing its “Next Steps” policy in March 2020, prolonging the slaughter of tens of thousands of badgers each year in existing and new places. Government claimed it decided not to protect NERC Act biodiversity interest from potential culling side-effects when culling began in 2013, and again in 2020, despite the 2018 Godfray review flagging-up continuing professional concerns about impacts and the need for research to enable management of risks.

The removal of badgers from the countryside is known to bring about a range of changes to natural communities. However, when identifying risks of such change, research undertaken over 10 years ago was limited to just a few species and habitats. Claimant Tom Langton’s previous cases in 2017 and 2018 showed that Natural England were in breach of their duty in not properly considering the same kind of  impacts to SSSI’s, leading to criticisms by the High Court. The current case challenges the continuing and long-term neglect of potential impacts on a wide range of habitats and species. These impacts may alter habitat condition and species survival as a result of  badger culling changing mammal diversity, including change to smaller predators numbers.

The case also highlights Natural England’s pitiful contribution to the monitoring of nature, the unacceptably poor condition of many nature reserves and protected areas, and to biodiversity depleted countryside in general. It draws attention to the lack of research into England’s habitats and species, and to the continued decline of many widespread and rare species and threatened habitats. It brings into focus the potential for badger culling to contribute to these declines, that despite recognition of this threat-type, government think too difficult or expensive to address.

 

Application to Appeal underway for dismissed ecological impacts Judicial Review

Mr Justice Griffiths’s judgement on the recent Judicial Review of the ecological impacts of badger culling in England is now to be challenged. Claims against the Secretary of State George Eustice concerning the government’s biodiversity duty, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA) were dismissed recently, after the July 2021 hearing. Following legal and technical advice over the last week, an application for permission at the Court of Appeal is now being prepared. This needs to be submitted within 21 days of the handing down of the judgement and determination of the application will be later this year.

Sincere thanks again are due to all those funding and supporting the legal work as a part of the Badger Crowd. This includes The Badger Trust who helped instigate the action in 2020, Badger Trust Sussex for managing offline donations, Wild Justice, very many of the  badger groups and organisations around the UK, many other animal welfare and conservation bodies and a number of generous individuals. Hundreds of badger workers and the general public have also chipped in to spread the load. Others have helped with administration, publicity and coordination to enable a solid challenge. Sufficient funds are available at present and if permission is granted, a further fundraiser will be launched. We are the Badger Crowd. We stand up and fight for Badgers.

High Court judge decides that Defra 2020 badger cull policy does not trigger protection of biodiversity under the 2006 NERC Act

Today, Mr Justice Griffiths handed down a High Court judgement on the most recent Judicial Review on the ecological impacts of badger culling in England. He dismissed the claims made against the Secretary of State George Eustice, concerning the need for consideration of measures to protect species and habitats in the wider countryside, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA). This follows the decision to keep on culling badgers with changes in culling methods, including the wider introduction of reactive culling.

The claim had been brought in early 2020 by conservation ecologist Tom Langton, with support from the Badger Crowd, the broad affiliation of badger trusts, groups, and wildlife charities fighting poor science and decision making surrounding the badger culls in England. The ruling today for Judicial Review CO/2062/2020 suggests that despite the lack of evidence of the defendant recording any considerations, the Minister did not need to do anything “to have regard… to the purpose of conserving biodiversity” when the “Next Steps” policy was published in March 2020.

The judge indicated that so far, badger culling had been done “…with the benefit of all the evidence available about ecological impact and biodiversity. There was no new evidence that might even potentially have caused Next Steps to take a different turn.”

A ‘do-nothing’ approach was lawful?

However, Tom Langton’s earlier cases in 2017 and 2018 had exposed Natural England as being in breach of its duty for lack of protective measures for habitat and species features protected by Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Measures needed, which NE then hurriedly put in place via a new set of guidelines, requiring a wide range of practical precautions.

The recent case addressed species and habitats across an average of 90% of badger cull areas; on land beyond SSSI boundaries and protected by the NERC Act 2006.  In a statement provided to the court, Natural England, who license badger culling, stated that protection imposed on badger culling licences “…are not necessary outside protected sites in order to comply with the purpose of conserving biodiversity.”

The 2018 Godfray Review conclusion to continue culling had stated that ecological studies of the consequences of reducing badger densities on other species should be undertaken. The Godfray review recommendation on ‘periodic culling’ involved a five-year badger cull cessation period with associated badger vaccination, and was considered the most ‘promising’ future approach. But this was not adopted by the government in March 2020.

An application to the Court of Appeal is now under active consideration.

A Badger Crowd representative comments:

“This is obviously a disappointment and blow to all those concerned with the biodiversity crisis in nature-depleted England, and who wish to see the potential cost, and damage to our environment from badger culling properly addressed. Ecological impact and potential impact from badger culling are accepted processes that are under-researched and not properly monitored. The need to address them was established by legal action in 2017 and 2018.  If addressing these problems outside SSSIs is too difficult, as has been suggested, or perhaps too time consuming and expensive, then badger culling should stop.   Freshly extracted evidence shows how government has improperly withheld information, that now needs to be fully examined. But, except for a few SSSIs, by his own admission, the Secretary of State has decided not to protect 90% of the countryside from scrutiny of the potential ecological effects of badger culling. England’s wildlife and the public deserve better. Thanks are extended again to the legal team and experts, and to the 700 individuals and organisations who have donated so generously and given support over the last 18 months to try to bring government to account.”

The Judgement may be read in full here.

Badgers back in in Court

Did the government forget about Biodiversity?

On Thursday 22 July, in Court no. 2 of the Royal Courts of Justice, London, the latest Judicial Review surrounding badger culling was heard: The Queen on the application of Thomas Langton vs The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England: Case C0/2062/2020.

The hearing was held ‘in person’ but, due to covid-19 restrictions, with few attendees, and with the Honourable Mr Justice Griffiths presiding. Outside the Court, a number of badger-suited campaigners were drawing attention to the ongoing badger cull travesty of England, including stalwart Betty Badger with her friend Mary Barton, Chris Wood and members of the Herts and Middlesex Badger Group and others from Buckinghamshire. They were making the public aware of the hearing going on  inside, giving out leaflets and polite explanations to passers-by, as well as getting a lot of social media attention.  Sadly the court was closed to the public, but online coverage was available to limited number of viewers from both sides of the case.

The government had a number of lawyers and advisors present, with spoken representations made by barrister Hannif Mussa of Blackstone Chambers. Mr Langton had spoken representations by barrister Richard Turney from Landmark Chambers. The case before the court was less complex than the previous ecological impact cases brought in 2017 and 2018. In those, inadequate provisions by Natural England (NE) with respect to European Designated Sites and in respect of Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protection of Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) had been successfully exposed. This had caused NE extensive work to remedy failings, having been found in breach of their statutory duty.  This time, the case before the court was simply that there was no evidence at all that the Secretary of State had ‘had regard’ to conserving biodiversity, and specifically the species and habitats listed by  and protected under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. SSSI’s might typically cover a small proportion of badger cull areas, but what about the wildlife interests on the other 80% or more of land? Where is the evidence of monitoring of and safeguard from changes to mammal populations and predatory influences, upon threatened and vulnerable species and habitats in the countryside?

NERC Section 40 and 41

Section 40 of the NERC Act places a duty to conserve biodiversity on public authorities in England. It requires local authorities and government departments to have regard to the purposes of conserving biodiversity and to do so, in a manner that is consistent with the exercise of their normal functions, such as policy and decision-making. ‘Conserving biodiversity’ may include enhancing, restoring, or protecting a population or a habitat.  Section 41 requires the Secretary of State to publish and maintain lists of species and types of habitats which are regarded by NE to be of “principal importance” for the purposes of conserving biodiversity in England. These 56 priority habitats and 943 species are drawn from carefully considered lists of United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species and Habitats and therefore take forward the UK’s response to its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity (the Rio Treaty). The Section 41 lists are needed by decision-makers in local and regional authorities when carrying out their duties under Section 40 of the Act, and in addition to lists of species and habitats in other legislation. The case looked at whether they had been completely overlooked in respect of the potential impacts of badger culling and the ecosystem changes that may occur, or not?

Biodiversity Impact expert Dominic Woodfield had provided a witness statement to support Mr Langton’s statement on inadequate approaches by Defra, showing the court a comprehensive list of overlooked species and offering examples of the way in which disruption of ecological systems can bring about potential changes to NERCA species and habitats through change in  predation type and extent and via vegetation change, for example in lowland calcareous grasslands.

Defra’s position was that (despite the lack of evidence)  it had ‘had regard’, and that in any case NE considers such matters when issuing badger cull licences. Dr Eleanor Brown, a qualified vet who manages the Bovine TB policy for Defra and the Animal Plant and Health Agency, had made a witness statement mentioning a report on ecological consequences of badger culling, prepared by the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in advance of badger culling in 2011, and that refers to the section 40 NERC Act duty. There were some references to legal necessities in the original 2011 badger culling policy, including those regarding the protection of European Designated Sites, but nothing specific on the NERCA species and habitats, with respect to licensing conditions.

The government also sought to claim that “Next Steps” was a policy where intensive and supplementary badger culling was being ‘phased out’ in favour of badger vaccination. But the fact is that intensive & supplementary culling was to continue for five or more years, and ‘epidemiological’ culling, a type of localised intensive (reactive) culling, along the lines of the Cumbria cull is being ‘phased-in’ to replace it. Further, any use of badger vaccination was conditional upon the results of yet more vaccination trials. More badgers are likely to be killed under the new policy than have already died.

The ‘withheld’ 2018 British Trust for Ornithology report

Dr Brown had also mentioned some research commissioned by NE from the British Trust of Ornithology in 2019 to compare  bird recording records made by volunteers inside and around the edge of badger culling areas, before and after badger culling. The study had compared these with bird records from unculled areas. This had given rise to a published paper in 2021, but that was after the policy had been confirmed in March 2020. In the days leading up to the case however, the earlier report completed in 2018 by BTO for NE and used for the policy, was released.

Oystercatcher; now you see them, now you don’t ? One of a number of medium sized waders (such as redshank, snipe and lapwing) at risk from changing predation patterns, but only afforded protective consideration by conditions on culling licences, when nesting on protected sites.

Natural England, an interested party in the case, was not represented in court. However, a witness statement had been provided by Dr Matthew Heydon, who works on ‘Species Protection and Wildlife Management’ for Natural England.  His statement opined that protected species and habitats should be considered on a ‘case by case’ basis, but that looking at the whole list of NERCA species was considered too much of a burden. A note that he helped to prepare at the start of badger culling referred to the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but only to NERCA in the sense of it being the instrument by which NE could license badger culling for the Secretary of State. There was no mention of biodiversity duties. Natural England had drawn up some new advice “Guidance for the assessment of fox control practices around designated sites” dated April 2021, showing that NE agree that credible risks are present for which precautions are necessary.

How wide does the challenge reach and when might the ruling be?

The government put a lot of effort into saying the case only related to supplementary badger culling, but Mr Turney refuted this, pointing to the simple wording of the grounds of challenge. Any problem with the approach taken by Defra would ‘infect’ all forms of culling and not just supplementary badger culling, in any case.

The hearing had been expedited and the judge indicated that he would be making his decisions in due course. An exact date is not clear, but within six weeks seems likely and probably before the end of August.

 

We reached our fundraising target!

Thank You

Thanks are due to everyone – to those who supported the 2017 challenges and to those joining us afresh. To those who helped promote the CrowdJustice crowdfunder and those who donated to it. It seemed like a  mountain to climb just a few weeks ago, but you all stepped up to make it happen and we reached our fundraising target. Behind the  670 donations is  a majority of the public, disgusted by the cruel, useless badger culls and those who recklessly promote and protect them. There is enormous support for the fight against the badger cull, from a very wide range of people and organisations, and for so many legitimate reasons. Yet it is so hard to challenge the corrupted processes that are stage-managed by government officials and contractors behind the scenes. The voice of the public, including specialists speaking out in the interests of badger and biodiversity protection, and the interests of competent bovine tuberculosis control, have been left out of the decision-making process.  Updates on the case, including the substantive hearing this Thursday 22 July at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, will be issued as things progress. But for now, thanks again for playing your part and for helping to make this possible. We are the Badger Crowd. We stand up for Badgers.

Two bits of news………..

Permission  granted for Judicial Review of aspects of  the 2020 “Next Steps” bTB eradication policy


On 9th May, the Court of Appeal granted permission for a Judicial Review, with a ruling by Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Bean. The Ground of challenge approved for scrutiny concerns a decision made by the Secretary of State George Eustice in February 2020, just after he took over from Theresa Villiers. In March of that year he signed off a “Next Steps”  policy to continue culling badgers.

The legal challenge maintains that the new policy was formed without adequate regard to conserving biodiversity, as is required by duties under section 40(1) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006. These duties are far ranging and relate to protection and recovery of biodiversity in England. Not just specific duties to internationally protected species and sites. The case has been brought to the courts by ecologist Tom Langton, following a grant last year from the Badger Trust to help instigate challenges against the new policy.

Very many people have been concerned about how removing badgers from county wildlife sites and fields, woodlands and quiet corners in the landscape influences nature on a local level, especially as the policy has moved towards 100% eradication of badgers locally. The  new proposals promote the further phasing in of ‘reactive-style’ culling as a full replacement towards the end of the decade to the current intensive and supplementary culling approach.

A legal letter sent to Natural England (NE) has made it clear that they should not issue any badger culling licences this year as a result of this ongoing oversight. It is an omission  that has been persistent since 2013 and it is now part of a complaint accepted at the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention.  An urgent  Court hearing is being sought for this June.

Legal wheels turning again with new pre-action letter

The second matter relates to a previous Badger Crowd blog introducing analysis of official data from 2010 to 2020. Figures released on 10th March of this year complete the data for four full years of culling over six areas. The data  shows no significant difference in bTB levels between areas culled and those unculled since culling began. Further data from each of the main High Risk Area counties is consistent with cattle measures gradually becoming effective before badger culling started.

Bovine TB breakdowns (herds bTB Free status withdrawn) peaked and was in  decline before badger culling became widespread. A detailed report on this data has been sent to Defra and NE as new findings. What more evidence could NE want that badger culling is unsafe under Section 10 of the Badgers Act 1992?

NE have released, under Freedom of Information request, documents showing how far badger culling has drifted from policy science (The Randomised Badger Culling Trials: RBCT). Culling rules now move closer to a free-for-all, with culling over wider areas for longer and with new speculative methods. Immediate concern relates to ten potential badger cull areas that could be licensed for intensive culling for four year culls, starting this September, with a further ten next year.

All of this legal work will require funding to pursue and coffers are nearly empty. There is need to gear up for some emergency fundraising over the next few weeks and reach out widely to gain support. Please look out for a crowd funding link and for information on where donations can be sent. It is hoped that supporters can once again rise to the challenge and give badgers a chance to roam undisturbed across the fields and woods of England.  We will continue to seek justice in the best interests of badgers, wildlife, farming and the public.  The bovine TB crisis must focus on the cause of the problem; the spread of disease amongst cattle.